Tell Me the Odds (STPS #2)

Hundreds of thousands of screenwriting books have been sold based on two common misconceptions:

  • If you buy the right screenwriting book and do what it says, you have a good chance of becoming a big-time professional screenwriter.
  • Most big-time professional screenwriters make lots of money.

Since I’m not trying to sell screenwriting books, I can explain why these things aren’t true.

Wannabes versus Script Sales

To figure out your odds of becoming a big-time professional screenwriter, the first thing to calculate is the size of the pool of people who also want to be screenwriters.

The population of the Earth is about 7.7 billion people. Although it sometimes seems like everyone on Earth (and certainly everyone in LA) wants to be a screenwriter, it’s probably not quite everyone.

So let’s just look at the number of people who are demonstrably interested in screenwriting.

Here are some stats, focused just on English-speakers:

  • About 372,000 people subscribe to the screenwriting reddit.
  • About 100,000 people listen to the Scriptnotes podcast every week.
  • About 13,000 people are already members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA), which represents screenwriters.
  • About 7,000 people enter the Nicholl Fellowship screenwriting competition every year. (This is the most prestigious and important competition for wannabe professional screenwriters.)

Pick whichever number you like best and plug it in as the denominator in your equation.

Now for the numerator.

Spec Scripts

A “spec script” is one that the writer writes without getting paid for it. It’s written “on speculation.”

Most writers have to write some number of spec scripts to serve as writing samples before they ever get paid to write.

But most movies aren’t made from spec scripts. They’re made from scripts that writers were hired and paid to write.

For example, a movie studio may want to make the next installment in a successful series or “franchise” (like Star Wars, Star Trek, the Marvel Universe, etc.), or the studio may have the rights to a book, comic book, toy, or TV series they want to adapt.

Almost always, an established member of the WGA will get one of these writing assignments.

One way that people “break in” as screenwriters (and get to join the WGA) is by selling a spec script for a movie. Scott Myers, in his Go into the Story blog, has been counting spec script sales since 1991.

As he notes,

Tracking spec script deals is not an exact science. To make the blog’s list, there almost always has to be some sort of article in the press verifying a deal, but even then that can get dicey because the term “spec script” is itself rather amorphous in meaning.

Some announced “sales” are really only options for as little as $5-10 thousand.

In 2018, there were 40 announced spec script sales. Since 1991, the range has been 28 to 173 per year.

But most of those 40 sales were by established writers – members of the WGA. How many spec sales were by first-timers?

TWO.

In 2017, there were 62 spec sales. Of those, a whopping seven were by first-timers.

So let’s take 5 as a round number representing newbie script sales in recent years.

  • 5 out of 372,000 reddit users is .0000134.
  • 5 out of 7,000 Nicholl entrants is .0007.

These are not good odds, however you calculate them.

Making the Major Leagues

The WGA recognizes just how hard it is to get in. As it says in its welcome to new members:

You are now a professional writer. You had about a five times better chance of hearing your name read at the Major League baseball draft this year than of getting this letter. Make sure your parents know that.

As the WGA notes,

Approximately 1500 players drafted into Major League baseball every year; approximately 300 new members admitted to the WGAW every year.

Obviously, if there are 300 new members in the WGA every year, most of them get in by doing something other than selling a spec feature script.

The other ways are listed here.

“Breaking In”

Let’s say you’re one of those lucky new writers who manages to sell a script this year, or you otherwise qualified to join the WGA.

Congratulations!  You’re now a pro!  You’re gonna be rich!

Right?

Wrong.

A first script sale is likely to be at “WGA minimum,” which is around $100,000. Take out 10% for an agent, maybe 15% for a manager, and maybe 5% for a lawyer, plus 1.5% for WGA dues.

You’re down to $73,500 before you even pay taxes.

If you live in California, you end up with about $55,000 after taxes. That doesn’t go far in a place like LA, where the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $2,371.

BTW, John August wrote a great article on screenwriters and money here.

Working Screenwriters

Many of the people who sell a script and thus qualify to join the WGA will never again make money from screenwriting.

In fact, about half the members of the WGA earn zero from screenwriting in a given year.

Of the roughly 13,000 WGA members, 5,819 writers in the WGA West reported earnings under the WGA’s contracts in 2017 – 1,940 in film and 4,670 in television and on digital platforms.

Again, that doesn’t mean all those people are “successful,” as you might define it (though some are). It doesn’t mean they’re working full-time as screenwriters or able to support themselves from screenwriting. It only means they earned SOME income from screenwriting in 2017.

According to one source, screenwriters in the US earn an average of about $77,260 per yearwhen they have work. (For UK numbers, see here.)

Here are some WGA stats from a few years ago:

Of the 1,799 WGA members who reported income in film last year, the median income was $93,482; thus, roughly 900 people earned more, 900 people earned less. The bottom 450 earned $32,652 or less; the top 450 earned $226,787 or more. Approximately 89 people earned above $663,400 (top 5%).

Again, it’s important to stress that screenwriting work is extremely irregular. From the WGA in 2011:

Most writers are middle class; 46% did not even work last year. Of those who do work, one quarter make less than $37,700 a year and 50% make less than $105,000 a year. Over a five-year period of employment and unemployment, a writer’s average income is $62,000 per year

For comparison, a Starbucks manager makes about $51,000. Oddly, there aren’t 3,000 books on Amazon.com about how to become a Starbucks manager.

So where do people get the idea that most screenwriters make millions?

Because of articles like this one, that focus on the handful of screenwriters who really do make the big bucks.

Should you give up on screenwriting?

If you got interested in screenwriting because you thought it was a fast-and-easy way to make a whole lot of money, you’re probably in for a big disappointment.

If you’re counting on screenwriting to pay off your student loans or let you quit your stupid day job, you probably need a better plan.

On the other hand, you have zero chance of becoming a professional screenwriter (big-time or small-time) if you don’t try.

It’s “worth” spending time screenwriting if you enjoy it — whether or not you make money.

Also, as I explain more in future chapters, although the odds of making big money are infinitesimal, pursuing screenwriting as a side gig (while keeping your stupid day job) can be a way to make a small amount of money doing what you love.